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This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

South Africa After Apartheid

Alex Callinicos

Amid the cynicism and torpor that descended over the globe after it turned out that 1989 had not, after all, ushered in a new world order, South Africa's first democratic elections in April 1994 shone out like a beacon. In an era when politicians were generally held in profound contempt, the new State President, Nelson Mandela, towered like a colossus. Here at least there was a story that seemed to have a happy ending, as the new 'rainbow nation' stepped proudly into the future.

The sweeping victory secured by the African National Congress (ANC) in the elections after all marked the climax of a struggle that had been going on since before the movement's foundation in 1912. It was a struggle for which Mandela had spent 27 years in prison, a struggle that had been revived by the great Soweto school students' rising of 16 June 1976, a struggle that, above all, had been taken to even greater heights by the township insurrections and workers' strikes of 1984-1986. Around the world millions had identified with the cause of the black majority in South Africa, had supported it by taking part in demonstrations and consumer boycotts, and now felt the ANC's triumph as theirs as well. Apartheid, the barbarous system of racial domination that had made South Africa (in the words of one of its own diplomats) 'a polecat among nations', was finally gone.

It will soon be two years since that historic victory. How well has the ANC led Government of National Unity (GNU) fulfilled the hopes raised by its entry to office? Commentators typically approach this question by launching a sort of pre-emptive strike. They talk about the problem of 'expectations'. By this they mean that the black people who voted for the ANC in April 1994 did so in the belief that the political transformation represented by black majority rule would rapidly usher in a social and economic transformation as well. Having won the vote, they expected from an ANC dominated government jobs, houses, and schools as well. But - say the commentators - these expectations are 'unrealistic'. The GNU, like governments everywhere, has to worry about enhancing competitiveness and reducing public spending. The masses' hopes for a rapid improvement in their material conditions will have to be deferred, perhaps indefinitely.

If this argument is correct, it predicts a bleak future for South Africa. In 1990 42 percent of the population lived in poverty.1 In 1991 South Africa had a Gini co-efficient, which measures the extent of income inequality, of 0.68, the highest in a group of 36 developing countries. That same year the poorest 40 percent of households earned 4 percent of national income, while the richest 10 percent received more than half.2 In 1995 unemployment among Africans was calculated to be 37 percent - almost certainly an underestimate.3

The appalling economic plight of the black majority was summed up recently by the Socialist Workers Organisation of South Africa:

Only one out of five African households have running water BUT every white household has running water.

One quarter of all African households get less than R300 a month. Two thirds get less than the breadline - R900 a month. BUT two thirds of white households get more than R2000 a month.

Two thirds of African children and half of Coloured children live in overcrowded houses BUT only 1 out of 100 white children live in overcrowded conditions.

Less than half of African kids live in a proper brick house. The rest live in shacks or huts BUT most white children live in a brick house.4

Leaving in place such poverty and inequality would help to perpetuate the desperation and misery that have produced levels of violence, both political and criminal, making South Africa one of the most dangerous societies in the world. It would also, over time, undermine the political achievements of the ANC led mass movement. To see whether such a grim outcome is inevitable we need, in the first instance, to consider the process that brought about the triumph of April 1994 in the first place.

The path to power

The elections of 26-29 April 1994 were the outcome of a strategic compromise between the two main political actors in South Africa - on the one hand, the African National Congress as the dominant force among the black majority and the embodiment of their aspiration for national liberation; on the other hand, the National Party (NP), the historic party of Afrikaner nationalism, in power since 1948, responsible for turning apartheid into a system, but now pursuing 'reform' in close alliance with big business.5

That compromise was embodied in the Interim Constitution finally agreed on at the Multi-Party Negotiating Forum in November 1993. This provided the basis on which the country's first one person, one vote elections were held the following April. Under the settlement, South Africa was to become a non-racial liberal democracy, subject to certain limitations. The most important of these was that during the five year transition period in which the new National Assembly would draft a final constitution a coalition government representing all the parties that won at least 5 percent of the vote would hold office. It is by virtue of this provision that the GNU comprises not merely the ANC, but also the NP, and the Zulu tribalist Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP).

The rationale for this compromise settlement reflected both sides' assessment of the balance of forces, and in particular their shared belief that neither could decisively defeat the other. The risings of 1984-1986 - and the persisting strength shown by the black organised working class during the State of Emergency which brought the insurgency to an end - convinced key figures in the regime that they would have to negotiate with the ANC. After becoming State President in August 1989, the new NP leader, F W de Klerk, made the decisive move in February 1990 of unbanning the ANC, the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC), and freeing Mandela, as a prelude to full scale talks.

In the meantime, many township and union activists had concluded after the defeat of the mid-1980s rebellion that the regime could be removed, not by mass insurrection, but by a negotiated settlement. This had always been the long term objective of the exiled ANC leadership in the Zambian capital of Lusaka. Now the conditions were emerging in which this goal could realistically be pursued. But it is clear that the decisive initiative in making contact with the regime was undertaken independently by Mandela himself in Pollsmoor prison.

After an initial meeting with justice minister Kobie Coetsee during a spell in hospital in November 1985, Mandela was separated from his fellow ANC prisoners on his return to gaol. He later recalled:

Immediately in my mind I said: 'Well, this would be a good opportunity to start negotiations with the government and to maintain this element of secrecy.' If you are a member of an organisation and your comrades say: 'Don't do this,' whatever your views are, that you have to accept, and that is what I feared. I wanted to confront them [the ANC] with a fait accompli.6

While still nominally a prisoner of the South African state, and ignoring the initial objections of the ANC leadership, Mandela held a total of 47 meetings with a secret committee set up by Coetsee on the instructions of State President P W Botha. Despite the ground that had thus already been covered by February 1990, the path to a negotiated settlement proved tortuous and very bloody.7

The fundamental reason for this lay in the strategy pursued by de Klerk and the NP. It soon became clear that they were not negotiating in good faith. Their aim was, while conceding the formal principles of liberal democracy, to preserve the substance of white economic and political power. Initially, the regime harboured vain hopes of splitting Mandela off from what they believed to be the Communist dominated ANC in exile.

Then it sought to create an electoral alliance between the NP and conservative black organisations, above all Inkatha. All out warfare between ANC and IFP supporters, which had first developed in the townships and squatter settlements of Natal after the 1984-1986 risings, spread to the Pretoria-Witwatersrand-Vereeniging (PWV) region, the industrial and political heart of South Africa centred on Johannesburg, in July-August 1990. Overwhelming evidence rapidly accumulated of the role of a 'third force', backed by the security forces and allied to Inkatha, in stoking up the violence. The effect was to disorganise the ANC's popular base and force it onto the defensive.

To counter this attack the ANC leadership found itself compelled to turn to the masses. After a particularly revolting IFP massacre in the Vaal township of Boipatong in June 1992, the movement returned to the streets. The ANC and its allies in the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) had already launched a Mass Action Campaign after the collapse of the first attempt at formal all party talks, the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA), in May. Cyril Ramaphosa, secretary general of the ANC and the movement's chief negotiator, explained: 'We needed to put the entire struggle on a completely different plane, and that plane had to be resorting back to the major power that we had, which was our people.'8 On 3-4 August some 4 million workers took part in a massive political general strike. After this demonstration of mass determination the NP could harbour no illusions about the extent and the depth of the ANC's popular support.

For Mandela and Ramaphosa, however, the Mass Action Campaign was only a brief detour from the negotiating table, a means of showing the regime how strong the ANC's hand was, and a way of allowing their increasingly angry and impatient supporters to let off a bit of steam. The 'Leipzig Option' - the strategy supported by some ANC and SACP leaders of using mass demonstrations to bring down de Klerk - was discredited after one of its main proponents, Ronnie Kasrils, was widely believed to have rashly led marchers into a massacre by soldiers of the Ciskei Bantustan at Bisho in September 1992.9

The same month saw a public resumption of contacts between the ANC and the NP (private discussions between Ramaphosa and his government counterpart Roelf Meyer continued throughout the Mass Action Campaign). But in order to secure a summit with Mandela that would agree the basis for carrying on with the negotiations, de Klerk had to make a symbolically crucial concession concerning the release of political prisoners. For Ramaphosa, that 'without a doubt was the turning point of the whole negotiating process.'10 The ANC subsequently made its own major concession when Joe Slovo, chairperson of the SACP, persuaded it to accept the principle of 'sunset clauses', ie temporary departures from strict democratic principles such as a transitional coalition government that would help to overcome white fears of majority rule.11

The final settlement was, however, considerably more favourable to the ANC than de Klerk and his advisers had hoped. This outcome, however, did not derive chiefly from the negotiating skills of Mandela, Ramaphosa and Slovo. Once again it was a consequence of the intervention of the masses. In April 1993 a white fascist assassinated Chris Hani, general secretary of the SACP and one of the most popular ANC leaders. There followed a spontaneous explosion of popular anger. Two stayaways (political general strikes) and numerous demonstrations showed, not only that the black masses overwhelmingly backed the ANC, but that they might escape from anyone's control. The abyss was opening up before the regime. Mandela, not State President de Klerk, appeared on television to call for calm. Patti Waldmeir of the Financial Times argued that the assassination and the reaction had the effect of 'permanently tilting the balance in the ANC's favour and allowing them to extract the concession that elections would be held on April 27 [1994]'.12

There was, however, one final stage in the transition to democracy where the masses played a decisive role. The political realignment in 1992-1993 drew the ANC and the NP together, and left the IFP relatively isolated (although there is plenty of evidence of security force complicity in the violence that continued to rage in the townships and squatter camps of Natal and the East Rand almost up to election day itself). Inkatha's leader, Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, Chief Minister of the KwaZulu Homeland, therefore threw his lot in with various other political forces threatened by the end of apartheid. These included principally the white far right. The angry black reaction to Hani's assassination terrified many whites, and rallied together right wing opponents of de Klerk's policy in the Afrikaner Volksfront (AVF), under the leadership of General Constand Viljoen, ex-Chief of the South African Defence Force (SADF).

The Freedom Alliance, a strange coalition of Afrikaner and African ultra-conservatives, now took shape. Aside from the AVF and the IFP, the principal backers of the Freedom Alliance were the rulers of two 'independent' Bantustans, the Ciskei and Bophuthatswana. Combined with Buthelezi's control of KwaZulu and of parts of Natal, this gave the opponents of the settlement an extensive territorial grip, and therefore the capacity substantially to disrupt the elections, which the Freedom Alliance threatened to boycott. Viljoen claimed to be training up a formidable military force, and could certainly count on plenty of sympathy in the ranks of the SADF.

The ANC responded to the far right threat, and the escalation of violence as the elections drew near, by offering Viljoen, Buthelezi and their cronies significant constitutional concessions. The Johannesburg Weekly Mail and Guardian argued that these actually worked to de Klerk's benefit. 'For the first time the NP will be able to claim some "victories" at the negotiating table', the newspaper commented.13 It is hard to say how far this surrender to right wing blackmail would have gone had not the masses intervened.

At the beginning of March 1994 student demonstrations and workers' strikes paralysed Bophuthatswana. As his police started to mutiny and join the rising, the Homeland's president, Lucas Mangope, appealed to his Freedom Alliance partner, Viljoen, for help. The general responded by sending thousands of AVF 'farmers' to Bophuthatswana. What had been intended as a disciplined military operation disintegrated into chaos as the thugs of the fascist Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB) joined the expedition, apparently against the wishes of Viljoen and Mangope. But they soon discovered they had chosen the wrong century. The glory days of the Boer republics were over, and their would be heirs were confronting blacks ready and able to fight and win.

Bophuthatswana soldiers refused to supply the AVF with the weapons Mangope had promised them, and threatened to attack the right wingers. The AWB were persuaded to pull out of the Homeland, and were followed slightly later by the AVF force. As they drove in convoys through its capital, Mmabatho, the fascists fired indiscriminately at people in the streets. At a roadblock three AWB men got involved in a shoot out with rebel soldiers and policemen. That night the world saw on television their last moments, as the fascists begged ineffectually for their lives. In a few minutes a giant shadow that hovered threateningly over South Africa's transition to democracy since the late 1980s - the white far right - was dispersed.

The effects of the Bophuthatswana rising were enormous. Mangope was toppled, and Bophuthatswana was reincorporated into South Africa.14 Within a few days the Ciskei's military dictator, Oupa Gqozo, and his Bantustan had suffered the same fate. Viljoen, already uncomfortable with the more unsavoury or demented of his right wing allies - the Nazis of the AWB and the pro-apartheid no hopers of the Conservative Party - used the pretext of the debacle to break with the AVF and launch the Freedom Front to represent the cause of traditional Afrikaner nationalism in the elections. Buthelezi now found himself isolated. Outmanoeuvred by the ANC, who were able to draw into their camp the Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini - long impatient with his uncle and prime minister's tutelage, Buthelezi grudgingly agreed to end his boycott only a week before the elections.

The historic achievement of the April 1994 elections was thus a consequence less of the skill and determination of the ANC leadership (though no one could deny that they had plenty of both), than of mass struggle. It was the risings of the mid-1980s, and what they represented - not merely the incredible courage and elan of the township youth, but the strength and endurance of organised black labour - that had forced de Klerk to the negotiating table in the first place. But even after the great breakthrough of February 1990, further mass action, sometimes orchestrated from the top, more often a result of initiatives from below, was necessary first to strengthen the ANC's bargaining hand and then to knock out the far right. Mandela's words to the people as voting began on 26 April were truer than he perhaps knew: 'This is your day.'

Talk of the 'problem of expectations' needs to be considered in this light. The oppressed and exploited - workers, students, unemployed, township and squatter camp dwellers - had won the great victory over apartheid. Whenever they were asked, they made it clear that they had been fighting for more than new laws and a new constitution. They had fought to change their lives dramatically for the better. Often they were prepared to put it in more theoretical terms by saying that they were fighting for socialism as well as national liberation. This was one reason why the red banners of the Communist Party had such a powerful attraction for the more militant workers and youth.

These aspirations deserve better than to be patronised by journalists and ex-Marxist academics who dismiss them as fantasies spun by those who fail to understand the 'realities' of the global market and of the kind of voodoo economics promoted by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. It was the black masses who put Mandela in his official residence at Tuynhuys, all his ministers in their offices and limousines, the members of parliament and of provincial assemblies in their seats. Their 'expectations' of a total liberation should serve as the benchmark by which the 'New South Africa' is judged.

From mass struggle to reformism

Yet even before the ANC took office in May 1994 it was already clear that it would introduce only limited changes in the social and economic structure of South Africa. The ANC and its close partner in the struggle, the SACP, had long been committed to what came to be known as the two stage strategy. Derived ultimately from Stalinist orthodoxy, this sharply separated the struggle against apartheid from that against capitalism. Its political conclusion was: first win national liberation by means of a broad democratic alliance of all classes of the oppressed population plus anti-apartheid whites; only once that has been achieved should the question of socialism come onto the agenda…

For full text see: http://pubs.socialistreviewindex.org.uk/isj70/safrica.htm

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. Return to the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory site.